Interpretation for Archeologists   2. What is Interpretation?   Distance Learning

"So What?": Encouraging Stewardship

(photo) An archeologist talks about artifacts during teacher training at Fort Frederica.

An archeologist talks about artifacts during teacher training at Fort Frederica. (SEAC)

The National Park Service is charged with the management of some of our nation’s most significant cultural resources. The goal of the interpretation of archeology is for visitors to develop an ethic for stewardship through finding personal meaning in the resources. This isn’t necessarily as hard as it might seem: A recent poll by Harris Interactive suggests that the American public’s curiosity about archeology lays the groundwork. The poll shows that people think archeology has educational value and informs modern life; they also agree that laws should protect archeological resources. Interpretation plays an important role in cultivating the public’s curiosity and building a stewardship ethic.

We want visitors to move away from using the phrase “So what?” to express indifference for the resources. We want them to use “So what?” in another way, one that demonstrates critical thinking and personal involvement and dialogue in a subject. An ethic for understanding and protecting archeological resources comes from such connections.

Effective interpretation moves a visitor to realize the relevance and significance of resources in contemporary life and how he or she plays a role in protecting them. Archeologists can take the opportunity to encourage stewardship by the public as a way to spread the message of the importance of the field.

For Your Information

Why do people value resources like nature centers, battlefields, reservoirs, or scenic wonders? Your colleagues said:

“These resources all have realness. They provide authentic experience and the sense of being there. People value them because they create context and perspective. They reframe aspects of an individual’s life.”
“They are special places that give us the chance to connect with things bigger than ourselves.”
“They provide signs and instructions for the future.”

The relationship between resources, audience, and interpretation is key:

  • Resources possess meanings and relevance, but they are complicated to interpret because individuals see different meanings in the same resources.
  • Audiences seek something special about resources, something of particular value or resonance to them that is interesting, unique, or entertaining. While the interpreter’s primary goal is to provide accurate, balanced access to meanings and interpretation’s primary goal is to inspire audiences to care about the resources, audiences must be allowed to form their own passions and understandings aside from the interpreter.
  • Interpretation, then, facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the resource. Audience interest and preservation go hand in hand: The public must care about a resource before people will value its preservation and, as a result, archeological resource preservation depends on the audience’s access to the meanings of the resources.

Case Study

Ancient Architects of the Mississippi
This web site interprets how universal concepts such as sustenance, social hierarchy and ceremony influenced how and why Native Americans molded the earthen mounds found in the Mississippi Delta. Today, the legacy of the moundbuilders is at risk. Most earthworks are worn down to unassuming shapes in the overgrowth along remote fields and tributaries. Many have been looted or damaged by farming and construction.

This website is part of an effort to preserve the legacy that survives along the banks of the lower Mississippi.

Interpretation connects the resource and the audience by presenting broadly relevant meaning. To attain this goal, “So what?” can be distilled into three steps within the interpretive process that are important for archeologists to understand and use successfully:

  1. Define the relationship between resource, audience, and interpretation
  2. Link tangible resources to intangible resources and meanings
  3. Communicate universal concepts

Archeologists and interpreters should emphasize stewardship of archeological resources in any visitor exchange, from tours of archeological sites to exhibitions to discussions of ongoing fieldwork. Through effective preservation and protection, archeological resources can continue to convey their important history about people from the past to present and future generations of Americans.

Interpretive programs reach park visitors when they are still forming their opinions, value, and ethics. Long-term survival of park resources depends upon a stewardship ethic among the general population. The majority of threats to the resource are, by definition, caused by humans. Establishing a bond between visitors and the park can create a sense of shared ownership and lifelong commitment to park ethics.

Case Studies

Caring for Sites
Take a look at this site from the Archeology Program to learn about private and public site stewardship.

Stewardship: Archaeology as a Public Interest
Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant in the XXI Century (M.A.T.R.I.X.) posts this educational unit about archeology and stewardship among its teacher resources. It also includes several readings.

Archeology Features
Our online features explore the National Monuments, African American archeology, ancient Native American history, the growth of public archeology, and more.

The Public Benefits of Archeology
This site introduces some of the many publics who use and enjoy archeology. Let your imagination be your guide through the scenarios and into the case studies.

For Your Information

Telling the Stories: Planning Effective Interpretive Programs for Properties Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
This National Register Bulletin, rich with case studies, offers valuable information for individuals and institutions working to convey the meaning of historic places to the public.

Component for Module 101: Why We Do Interpretation: Meeting the NPS Mission
This component establishes the foundation for Module 101: Fulfilling the NPS Mission: The Process of Interpretation, by defining the interpreter as integral to the development of the profession. It provides a set of ground rules to establish a personal interpretive philosophy and articulate ways in which interpretation contributes to resource protection and stewardship.

Maria Ramos and David Duganne, Harris Interactive
2000 Exploring Public Perceptions and Attitudes about Archeology , Society for American Archeology

The Harris poll outlines public attitudes toward archeology. Check it out for useful insights into what the public thinks about the field. Consider how interpretive programs can respond to gaps in understanding.

MJB/EJL